Film review: Atlas Shrugged

posted at 10:30 am on April 17, 2011 by Ed Morrissey

While some people waited excitedly for the premiere of the first cinema installment of Ayn Rand’s seminal novel Atlas Shrugged, I have to admit that I didn’t hold out high expectations for the film.  The book was a smashing exercise in philosophical, economic, and political study — absolutely brilliant.  As entertainment, however, the novel has its problems, and even the most determined reader can find getting through the book’s massive size a daunting and patience-testing task.  I read Atlas Shrugged twenty-five years ago, and while I appreciated its brilliance, I have had little desire to revisit it since.

So it’s fair to say that I prepared myself for a difficult slog, but to my surprise, Atlas Shrugged Part I turned into an intriguing, stylish film that did not water down the Randian message in the least.   In fact, the film format seems to free the characters in some sense from the limitations of Rand’s prose and give more clarity and purpose to the story, while keeping its message firmly at the film’s center.

When the novel was first published in 1957, the rail industry was still a central key to the American economy.  The film takes place in the near future, starting in 2016, and cleverly uses a global energy crisis to return rail to a central position in American industry.  Economic decline has pushed American government with ever-increasing speed into interventionism and central planning.  Politicians and lobbyists scream about fairness and the need to force the wealthy to pay their share in order to show compassion.  In fact, the producers could have placed large blocs of Barack Obama’s entitlement-reform speech from last Wednesday into the film, and it would have fit neatly into the narrative.

A few titans of industry resist the momentum of socialism — or to be more accurate, the crony capitalism that precedes and abets socialism and fascism. Dagny Taggart (Taylor Schilling) needs to save her family’s railroad empire from her incompetent brother (Matthew Marsden), and turns to steel producer Henry Rearden (Grant Bowler) for a revolutionary new metal for aging and unreliable tracks.  She needs them to service oil tycoon Ellis Wyatt (Graham Beckel), who says he has discovered an ocean of oil in Colorado. Rearden’s facing trouble from the government as his former advocate Wesley Mouch (Michael Lerner) essentially switches sides and tries to put him out of business.  Meanwhile, prominent and successful men keep disappearing without a trace, and no one knows where they have gone — except perhaps Dagny’s old flame Francisco (Jsu Garcia), who may not be the dissipated playboy he seems.

All of this could have moved turgidly along for the 102 minutes of screen time that Part 1 takes, and in the first few minutes, the introductory dialogue seems a little stilted and forced.  The film quickly finds its pace, though, and moves snappily along afterward.  While the plot has been updated to contemporary times, the style of the film hearkens back to Rand’s time.  Dialogue is kept spare and meaningful, and skips the present-day sensibilities of tossing in stock comic-relief characters to lighten the mood. Visually, the film is rich and inviting, and thematically uses both the skepticism of noirish intrigues and the CinemaScope optimism seen in the 1950s and early 1960s, such as in films like Giant, which also had its share of both.

The characters get divided up fairly quickly into camps of antagonists and protagonists, with only Francisco and Paul Larkin (Patrick Fischler) having much ambiguity, and most of the characters in Part 1 belong in the former camp.  In morality plays — and this is definitely a large, complicated morality play — this kind of clarity is not unusual, and usually works.  It certainly does in Part 1.  Those used to having less certainty and more nuance in film characters will feel out of place, perhaps, but don’t confuse this with cardboard characterizations, at least not with the main characters.  Grant Bowler’s Henry Reardon is a masterpiece of underplayed power and nuance, easily the best performance in this installment, although newcomer Taylor Schilling does well as the central character in the film.

The best word to describe Atlas Shrugged Part 1 is … surprising.  It’s surprisingly well-paced, surprisingly intelligent, surprisingly well-acted, and surprisingly entertaining.  Perhaps most surprising of all, it has me thinking about re-reading the novel again.  I would highly recommend it to friends and their families.

Speaking of friends, one of the actors in the film is Navid Neghaban, who played the villainous husband in The Stoning of Soraya M. Navid will join me on Tuesday to discuss the film on The Ed Morrissey Show, which starts with Andrew Malcolm at 3 pm ET.

Update: I deliberately avoided reading reviews of the film until after I saw it first, but one of the first places I checked after writing my review was Reason Magazine — and I was surprised to find a range of reactions to it, from Kurt Loder’s panning to Brian Doherty’s qualified endorsement, with a more enthusiastic reaction from Matt Welch thrown in as well.   Also, according to Box Office Mojo, the limited release seems to be paying dividends.  The film had the third highest per-screen average on Friday night of the films at the box office.  The trick will be to move it up from 300 screens to somewhere over 1000, if possible.  With a budget of only $10 million, it won’t take long for the film to recoup its costs.


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I read Atlas Shrugged the Tolkien novels ~twenty-five years ago, and while I appreciated its brilliance, I have had little desire to revisit it since.

This sums stuff up for me in that arena.
Considering the Tolkien novels were made into great movies, perhaps I shouldn’t try & read Rand’s book. Bcs nothing irritates me more than a long, drawn out boring book with a great message you have to slog through to get at.
I’ll watch this movie.

Badger40 on April 18, 2011 at 9:15 AM

And if the states are responsible for roads within their own borders, then the government won’t have to waste so much effort on giving money back to the states that comes from the states’ citizenry anyway. Cut out the middlemen!

gryphon202 on April 17, 2011 at 5:54 PM

Better yet, privatize the roads into toll roads. At this point, we have the technology to do that without actual toll booths.

Count to 10 on April 18, 2011 at 9:28 AM

Re: trains as efficient transportation

It’s already been well said, but of course I support high speed rail when private capital is used for its construction with the intent of profit. The government has no business running trains.

How can anybody think that government is serious about maintaining transit systems when there are no government-run systems in the nation that run at a break-even, much less in the black?

The day Amtrak, NJ Transit, MTA, BART, etc. all start charging actual economic fares for their services, then I’ll believe they’re serious about transportation.

allanbourdius on April 18, 2011 at 9:30 AM

Hmmm, guess it did eat my post. Dang.

TASS71 on April 18, 2011 at 10:05 AM

One quibble, though this as much with Rand as with the movie. I think the government forces should be a lot more sympathetic, at least to start. I think that’s a more realistic way to see many liberals. They’re not TRYING to put Dagny and Reardon out of business, they’re just trying to make things fair. As if anything in the world is fair over the long term.

hawksruleva on April 18, 2011 at 10:38 AM

Is there a character limit on comments?

TASS71 on April 18, 2011 at 10:39 AM

Considering the Tolkien novels were made into great movies, perhaps I shouldn’t try & read Rand’s book. Bcs nothing irritates me more than a long, drawn out boring book with a great message you have to slog through to get at.
I’ll watch this movie.

Badger40 on April 18, 2011 at 9:15 AM

Oddly enough, to me the avalanche of words in Rand’s novel actually seemed like a plot device to me. When you’re talking about entrepeneurs being drug down by the quicksand of bureaucrats and unions, the sheer volume of the book made me think of red tape.

hawksruleva on April 18, 2011 at 10:40 AM

This sums stuff up for me in that arena.
Considering the Tolkien novels were made into great movies, perhaps I shouldn’t try & read Rand’s book.

John Galt was a great entrepreneur capitalist and inventor in a developing economy. The United States is a developed country where job growth where railroads are simply don’t play a crucial role in job growth (although Warren Buffet may disagree with that statement.)

If you look at the Fortune 100 and the entrepreneur-billionaires of today, your model isn’t a railroad man. For the average viewer, this oversight makes the movie feel like an anachronism and relic of another time. No one becomes a great capitalist today by building railroads. The move fails by not picking a modern model of the great capitalist entrepreneur like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs and then showing how Rand’s ideas are still relevant today.

bayam on April 18, 2011 at 10:49 AM

“There is nothing to take a man’s freedom away from him, save other men. To be free, a man must be free of his brothers.”

~~ from Anthem (1937)

“Anyone who fights for the future, lives in it today.”

~~ from The Romantic Manifesto (1969), p. viii

“No, it is not as late as you think. It is merely early – in the age of the rebirth of Individualism.”

~~ letter to Burt McBride (August 30, 1946) ; in Letters of Ayn Rand (1995)

RedPepper on April 18, 2011 at 11:05 AM

Re: trains as efficient transportation

It’s already been well said, but of course I support high speed rail when private capital is used for its construction with the intent of profit. The government has no business running trains.

How can anybody think that government is serious about maintaining transit systems when there are no government-run systems in the nation that run at a break-even, much less in the black?

The day Amtrak, NJ Transit, MTA, BART, etc. all start charging actual economic fares for their services, then I’ll believe they’re serious about transportation.

allanbourdius on April 18, 2011 at 9:30 AM

Do you support government funded highways? How about airports? Ports?

jonknee on April 18, 2011 at 11:25 AM

Also, according to Box Office Mojo, the limited release seems to be paying dividends. The film had the third highest per-screen average on Friday night of the films at the box office. The trick will be to move it up from 300 screens to somewhere over 1000, if possible. With a budget of only $10 million, it won’t take long for the film to recoup its costs.

The per-screen average is good, but not great. A lot of folks who are trying to hype up its 3rd place finish in that category are conveniently overlooking the fact that the #2 movie(Scream 4) had a disappointing opening. Which is a shame BTW because that’s a damn good sequel. Far better than the piece of crap Scream 3.

Next weekend will be key. Whether it expands to more screens or not, it needs to keep attracting audiences and at least maintain its per-screen numbers or else it’ll get dropped by theaters and recouping even $10 million might be a tall order.

Doughboy on April 18, 2011 at 11:29 AM

The move fails by not picking a modern model of the great capitalist entrepreneur like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs and then showing how Rand’s ideas are still relevant today.

bayam on April 18, 2011 at 10:49 AM

You can’t always predict what the future of the economy will be. In this case, they offered a plausible explanation for staying with the railroads, and it meant changing less of the story around.

Count to 10 on April 18, 2011 at 11:33 AM

Do you support government funded highways? How about airports? Ports?

jonknee on April 18, 2011 at 11:25 AM

Theoretically speaking, highways are funded by a fee on gas (aka, the gas tax). They are not subsidized in the manor of taking in tax money from other sources. Are you sure that airports and ports are government funded? To what extent?

Count to 10 on April 18, 2011 at 11:37 AM

Is there a character limit on comments?

TASS71 on April 18, 2011 at 10:39 AM

Certain words can cause them to be held for moderation, and I’ve seen some people complain that enough links in the same comment will also do it.

Count to 10 on April 18, 2011 at 11:39 AM

That would explain it… I had 2, maybe 3 links in it. It was too long of a comment, at any rate… oh well. Thanks for the info.

TASS71 on April 18, 2011 at 11:43 AM

bayam on April 18, 2011 at 10:49 AM

The railroads are NOT the focus of AS. Do you not understand that?

Rearden and all of his mining interests and his steel. Those aren’t relevant juxtapositions of a modern entrepreneur? Ellis Wyatt and his oil and gas company aren’t good either?

Dagny tries to start her own line, the John Galt line, but is ultimately foiled after her initial success due to union meddling and extensive government regulation. But that isn’t relevant either?

There is plenty in the movie which is relevant to today – from business to politics, economics, etc.

Yes, if you read the novel today, some of the devices are dated. But the movie updates those elements nicely IMO.

catmman on April 18, 2011 at 12:08 PM

One quibble, though this as much with Rand as with the movie. I think the government forces should be a lot more sympathetic, at least to start. I think that’s a more realistic way to see many liberals. They’re not TRYING to put Dagny and Reardon out of business, they’re just trying to make things fair. As if anything in the world is fair over the long term.

hawksruleva on April 18, 2011 at 10:38 AM

Oh, criminy, don’t fall for that old liberal dodge of wanting to be judged on intentions instead of results. Given the havoc they’ve wreaked and misery they’ve caused with all their “unintended” consequences, they deserve no sympathetic treatment. And, anyhow, their motives are never as altruistic as they want you to believe.

SukieTawdry on April 18, 2011 at 1:04 PM

One quibble, though this as much with Rand as with the movie. I think the government forces should be a lot more sympathetic, at least to start. I think that’s a more realistic way to see many liberals. They’re not TRYING to put Dagny and Reardon out of business, they’re just trying to make things fair. As if anything in the world is fair over the long term.

hawksruleva on April 18, 2011 at 10:38 AM

Actually, no. What they say in public and what they say behind closed doors are very different things. The movie gives you a glimpse into their conversations where they say what they really think.

fossten on April 18, 2011 at 1:09 PM

I think the government forces should be a lot more sympathetic, at least to start. I think that’s a more realistic way to see many liberals.
hawksruleva on April 18, 2011 at 10:38 AM

You’ve got to be kidding.

rrpjr on April 18, 2011 at 1:31 PM

The per-screen average is good, but not great. A lot of folks who are trying to hype up its 3rd place finish in that category are conveniently overlooking the fact that the #2 movie(Scream 4) had a disappointing opening. Doughboy on April 18, 2011 at 11:29 AM

No, it’s an extraordinary per screen average for an indie film. It’s not hyping to call it so. This movie had absolutely zero mass marketing and it beat Redford’s film. I went with a friend who is a mainstream conservative and he didn’t even know the movie had been made.

I agree, the test will be next week. This movie will live or die according to word of mouth.

rrpjr on April 18, 2011 at 1:35 PM

Okay so it isn’t showing in my area yet… I am disappointed because I assumed it would.

Will it spread out?

petunia on April 18, 2011 at 1:54 PM

The move fails by not picking a modern model of the great capitalist entrepreneur like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs and then showing how Rand’s ideas are still relevant today.

bayam on April 18, 2011 at 10:49 AM

Well perhaps a lot of people really are that stupid that they cannot look at outdated examples & relate them to modern ones.
Personally, this is not anything that would bother me bcs I feel I am fully able to connect lessons of the past, even archaic examples, to modern day examples.
Bcs it’s all the same: the govt= pain in the a$$.

Badger40 on April 18, 2011 at 2:23 PM

petunia on April 18, 2011 at 1:54 PM

SW ND expecting up to another 8 inches by Wed.
This in addition to last Thursday’s 9 inches & Sat night’s 1/2 inch.
Right now, I am sick of ND.
Here’s to hoping for some warmer weather soon.

Badger40 on April 18, 2011 at 2:24 PM

bayam on April 18, 2011 at 10:49 AM

So, are you saying that the Government caused Vista? Because that was indeed a train wreck of epic proportions.

Freelancer on April 18, 2011 at 4:52 PM

Will it spread out?

petunia on April 18, 2011 at 1:54 PM

Heard that since it had a decent run this weekend they are trying to get it into another 700 theaters for a total of 1,000 up from the 300 in the limited release.

catmman on April 18, 2011 at 5:27 PM

Heard that since it had a decent run this weekend they are trying to get it into another 700 theaters for a total of 1,000 up from the 300 in the limited release.

catmman on April 18, 2011 at 5:27 PM

catmman, that’s wonderful news! Thank you! Where did you hear it?

Mary in LA on April 18, 2011 at 6:32 PM

First, fair warning. This will likely be a tl;dr post. My comments are usually very short. This will be an exception. Being buried on the end of the secondthird page might get me off the hook(I hope, sorry folks). This comment was moderated before, so I trimmed a little to see if it could go through now, thanks to others who pointed out what might have caused it.

Now, one of my favorite topics: AS. I have a copy within 5 feet of me as I write this. It is only ~1 year old and is completely dog-eared and due for replacement(it is a paperback). I have read through the entire book, all 1100+ pages, at least 15 times. Yeah, I like to read. :P

One of the first things book vs. movie review comparisons I would like to make, NOT having had the opportunity to see the movie(yet), is this: Recall at the end of HR’s show trial in the book, where the people were all cheering for him, telling him that his views and success were exactly what was needed(my paraphrasing), but recall also, that he thought to himself that the next day, those same people would be out asking for taxpayer-subsidized handouts, voting for the next thing that they could get for free(I think the book mentioned a playground). Well, I cannot help but think that are a lot of people out there who think in this manner. They know, deep down, that the liberal way will lead to figurative self-immolation, but they succumb to the idea that they should get what is “theirs” while they can, not unlike many people I know.

One thing that is alarming to me is the way that current events have so many close parallels to the book. The arguments used by liberals, the very wording of their attacks on anything conservative, the similarities are numerous. I wonder how many others who have read the book can see the same parallels that I see. Ayn Rand made vicious liberal outbursts look like the snarling of weaker dogs in a pack. And the current videos of liberals attacking tea party members, conservatives in general, even their own kind seem, to me anyway, to mirror those snarling weak dogs, ones who are frightened and backed into a corner, unsure whether to yelp and bare their bellies in submission or(/and?) to snarl ineffectually at what they perceive as a threat to their way of life. Another thing I have noticed is how liberal rants against conservative views seem to be using the rants of the liberals in Atlas Shrugged as their playbook, even parroting exactly what she wrote about nearly half a century ago. Was she that prophetic about how they would be or have liberal views been the same all along and I am simply too young to know that their message is the same now as it was back then?

And lastly, I get physically slightly ill when I hear the tired old argument that “the rich are not paying their share”. I am not one of those “rich” people that they are talking about, but I cannot stand the fact that these arguments spill out of liberal mouths attached to bodies that pay no income tax at all and still get “refunds”. Yet, with apologies to Ms. Rand, they deliver those untruths, damning the rich, in a tone of utter and complete self-righteousness. I have found that, as I age, fewer things make my temper flare. But every time I read or hear this despicable lie, I get very angry. What is it about the liberal mindset that makes them want to kill “the goose that lays the golden egg”? Equal opportunity my behind, these fools want equal misery.

TASS71 on April 18, 2011 at 8:03 PM

Oh yeah, anybody who has read the book can easily recognize the shockingly accurate portrayals of the demagoguery, the vitriol, and the sheer thruthlessness of the liberals’ arguments.

At the end of the day, putting all of the details in cold storage (not saying ignore them), the real foundational question is, does the government have, or should it have, unlimited authority to take from the individual anything they choose? Is equality of outcome more important than quality of effort? If the answer is no, then John Galt is right, Ayn Rand is right, and the looters are wrong.

Tony, the “Wet Nurse” learns by direct interaction with Reardon that he has been taught wrong all his life. Raised by looters, he believed in the looters’ “compassion”, until he saw where that compassion led.

Freelancer on April 19, 2011 at 5:28 PM

On the subject of subsidies for railroads: I can accept some subsidies for capital expenses such as maintaining the right-of-way and trackage (and for HEAVILY used urban lines, the purchase of rolling stock and signal upgrades) but NEVER for operating expenses. When operating expenses are subsidized, taxpayers are bled to for union wages and union dues.

njcommuter on April 19, 2011 at 10:01 PM

The Husband & I saw the movie on Monday night. Got a great, what I assume was the Geezer deal, $5 each. At first we were the only people there but eventually about 12 people in all. Don’t get depressed though, it was one of those big multi-plexs and the parking lot was empty so I don’t think any other current movies had many more people. We enjoyed it.

Cindy Munford on April 20, 2011 at 11:34 AM

catmman, that’s wonderful news! Thank you! Where did you hear it?

Mary in LA on April 18, 2011 at 6:32 PM

I read it here:

Awful or not, business has been brisk enough for producers Harmon Kaslow and John Aglialoro to expand from 299 theaters to 425 this weekend and to 1,000 by the end of the month, they told The Hollywood Reporter on Tuesday.

The two said they fielded 500 inquiries from theater bookers Monday but didn’t have enough film prints to fill orders.

We loved it. Saw it twice, once Mon. and once on Tues. in Vegas, baby. We’ll see it again if it comes any closer to Flagstaff than Tempe.

Rae on April 20, 2011 at 3:05 PM

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